Richard R. Ernst Biography

Richard Robert Ernst, a Swiss chemist, researcher, and teacher, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for his groundbreaking contributions to the development of high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Born in Winterthur, Switzerland, Ernst initially had a passion for music but discovered his love for chemistry at the age of 13. After completing his PhD in physical chemistry, he relocated to Palo Alto, California, where he collaborated with American scientist Weston Anderson to enhance the sensitivity of NMR techniques. Returning to his alma mater in Zürich, Ernst became a professor and introduced a technique that allowed for the detailed study of larger molecules using NMR. His work revolutionized the field of nuclear magnetic resonance, enabling scientists to investigate the interactions between biological molecules and various substances. Additionally, his advancements laid the foundation for the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in medical diagnostics. Ernst’s remarkable achievements include numerous inventions and patents.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Richard Ernst, Richard Robert Ernst
  • Died At Age: 87
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Magdalena, father: Robert Ernst, children: Hans-Martin, Anna, Katharina
  • Born Country: Switzerland
  • Chemists
  • Physical Chemists
  • Died on: June 4, 2021
  • Place of death: Winterthur, Switzerland
  • More Facts
  • Education: ETH Zurich
  • Awards: 1991 – Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1991 – Wolf Prize in Chemistry, 1985 – Marcel Benoist Prize, 1991 – Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize

Childhood & Early Life

Richard R. Ernst was born on August 14, 1933, in Winterthur, a suburb of Zürich, Switzerland, to Robert Ernst and Irma Brunner. He had two sisters. His father, Robert, was a teacher of architecture at the technical high school of Winterthur. Winterthur was a unique blend of artistic and industrious activities which influenced both, Richard’s leisurely and professional interests. At an early age, he learned how to play the violoncello and got interested in musical composition.

At the age of 13, however, he discovered his interest in chemistry. In his family garret, he chanced upon a box filled with chemicals that belonged to his late uncle, who was a metallurgical engineer but interested in chemistry. Thereafter, he started experimenting with the chemicals and became increasingly curious about chemical reactions. He furthered this interest by reading all available books on chemistry at his home and the city library. Before long, he realized that he wanted to be a chemist instead of a musical composer.

After high school, he enrolled at the famous Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich), eager to study his favourite subject. However, he was disappointed with the way Chemistry was being taught and often reverted to additional readings for enhanced knowledge. Through books like ‘Textbook of Physical Chemistry’ by S. Glasstone, he learnt topics that were usually not covered in academic lectures – fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, statistical mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics.


Richard R. Ernst received his diploma in chemistry in 1957. After a short break for military service, in 1962, he received his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry under Professor Hans H. Günthard from ETH Zürich. For his doctoral thesis, he worked with fellow scientist, Hans Primas, on high resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), designing and building improved NMR spectrometers. His post-doctoral year was spent as a researcher and teacher at ETH Zürich. After university, he decided to pursue an industrial job in the United States. In 1963, he joined as a research scientist at Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California.

This move became the turning point of his career. At Varian, he met other famous scientists who were working in the same field, albeit with clear commercial goals. The association with likeminded colleagues motivated him to continue his research. Richard R. Ernst particularly associated with American scientist Weston A. Anderson, and by 1966, they significantly enhanced NMR spectra by replacing slow sweep radio frequencies with high intensity short pulses. As a result, spectra that were previously too weak for identification were now clearly discernible. This discovery enabled the analysis of many more types of nuclei and smaller amounts of materials. During his final years at Varian (1966–68), they also developed numerous computer applications in spectroscopy for automated experiments and improved data processing.

In 1968, he returned to Zürich as a faculty member of ETH to guide a research group on NMR at the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry. He became a full professor in 1976. During this period, he made a more refined contribution to the field of NMR spectroscopy: a technique that enabled a high-resolution, two-dimensional analysis of larger molecules than had previously been accessible to NMR. The technique replaced single pulses of radio frequencies with a sequence of pulses. This technique enabled scientists to analyze the three-dimensional structures of organic and inorganic compounds, proteins and other large biological molecules, or macromolecules. Moreover, they were able to study interactions between biological molecules and other substances, identify chemical species and study the rate of chemical reactions.

His work further provided the foundation for the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which became one of the most important diagnostic tools for medical professionals.

Major Works

In 1966, together with scientist Weston A. Anderson, he discovered that the sensitivity of NMR techniques (previously restricted to the analysis of only a few nuclei) could be significantly increased by replacing slow, sweeping radio waves with short, intense pulses. This discovery enabled the analysis of many more types of nuclei and smaller amounts of materials. With his experimental demonstration of the ‘two-dimensional’ NMR technique, scientists were able to determine the 3D structure of organic and inorganic compounds and biological macromolecules such as proteins. They were also able to study the interaction between biological molecules and other substances such as water, drugs etc., identify chemical species and study the rate of chemical reactions.

Awards & Achievements

Ernst won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 “for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy”. In 1991, he also won the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with his colleague, Kurt Wüthrich for research in developing NMR methods that could show both the behaviour and structure of complex biological molecules. He also received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry the same year. He was awarded for Achievements in Magnetic Resonance EAS in 1992. He was a member of many international institutions, including the International Society of Magnetic Resonance, the American Physical Society, the Royal Society of London, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, and the science academies of India and Korea. Richard R. Ernst was also on the editorial boards of several journals concerning magnetic resonance and held several patents for his inventions.

Personal Life, Legacy & Death

Richard R. Ernst married Magdalena Kielholz on October 9,1963. The couple had three children; two daughters named Anna Magdalena and Katharina Elisabeth, and a son called Hans-Martin. All three of them are educators. He was a passionate musician. He used to collect Asian art and was especially interested in Tibetan scroll paintings. Richard R. Ernst died on June 4, 2021, at the age of 87, in Winterthur. Trivia: Modest and humble by nature, he attributed his scientific success largely to “external circumstances”, such as being in “the proper place at the proper time”.

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